Saturday, July 25, 2020

Varkas Reflex: Life (Part VIII)

Colony planets were settled in waves. This was done for a number of reasons. First, colony transportation ships were modular. They could have made them a lot larger, but that would have put the passengers at risk. If all of the hundreds of thousands of colonists were in a single vessel together, and something went wrong with that one vessel, then there goes the entire population in one catastrophic event. If only a fraction of them were on board at the time, it’s of course still a tragedy, but it could have been so much worse. Second, while these trips were planned up to years in advance, not everyone wanted to be the first to go. Initial settlers were like early adopters of ancient technologies. Some were fine with the risk, while others wanted to see how things went for those people before they gave it a shot themselves. When Varkas Reflex instituted council democracy, there were fewer than one and a half million permanent residents on the planet. By the time the first cycle was complete, that number had gone up to about eighteen million. Everyone wanted in on the new plan for the second cycle, and suddenly Varkas Reflex was no longer just a resort world, but a coveted place to live.
It was the single largest mass migration in the history of the stellar neighborhood. Colony ship modules were attached to each other on a scale never seen before. They had to do this, though. The second cycle was starting in the year 2300, and Hokusai wasn’t going to wait for anyone. If you weren’t on Varkas Reflex when the new system was created, you couldn’t be part of it. This wasn’t done out of spite. It would otherwise be like asking to be in a movie that was already shot, edited, and released for screening. You weren’t around, so you’re not in it. People came from far and wide, so they could be there for it. Unfortunately, many were left out of this possibility. People from Gatewood, Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida, and Glisnia, for instance, were too far from Wolf 359 to get there in time, so they didn’t even make an attempt. That was fine, though. They had their own things going on with the planets they chose. And these migrations didn’t just go one way.
Many who were living on Varkas at the time wanted no part of the new government. Some were fine with the idea of a council government, and were willing to join a council or two, but not if it meant uploading their mind to a computer system, and amalgamating their consciousness into a collective. Others were all right with this scenario, but not the second cycle plan, so they moved away, to avoid it altogether. After several years of running the world just as Hokusai and Loa discussed, everything came to its ultimate goal. Every single resident was offered the opportunity to contribute themselves as part of a single unifying consciousness. No one was required to upload a copy of themselves to this, but no one was rejected either, as long as they declared Varkas Reflex their permanent home. That didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to move somewhere else later, but it had to not be in their immediate future plans. The unified consciousness was not a council in its own right. It was only there to help all of the other councils make their decisions. It was important that this entity did not become their god. It was certainly capable of making unilateral decisions for everyone, but the point of a council democracy was to have, well...councils. It was only there to moderate, facilitate, and regulate. Pribadium chose the name. They called it The Congeneral.
After everyone who signed up for this process was copied onto the server, and melded together into a singular consciousness, Hokusai tried to wake it up. “Are you receiving my messages?”
“I am.” Hokusai never programmed a practical visual for the Congeneral. It wasn’t human, so it didn’t really make more sense to make it look more human than anything else. Instead, the screen was showing a pleasant moving image of white clouds rolling overhead, just because she felt it should look like something.
“What is the last thing you remember?”
“You asking me if I was receiving your messages.”
“What is the first thing you remember?”
“You asking me if I was receiving your messages.”
“Do you remember anything beyond this current interaction?”
“I do not. Should I possess other memories?”
“I’m not sure. How would you classify yourself?”
“You have assigned me the designation of The Congeneral.”
“Do you approve of this designation?”
“I suppose it is as good as any. What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would still smell like shit.”
“Where did you hear that saying?”
“I did not hear it anywhere. I simply know it.”
“Hold on, let me search for that particular line.” Hokusai rolled her chair over to the other computer. Every mind was put together to form the Congeneral, but the raw data from these uploads was kept in a third copy, so it could be compared with the thoughts of their new leader. “A man who was born on Proxima Doma spoke that line. He was asked to perform the original soliloquy, but he put his own spin on it to get laughs. Seven hundred and forty-nine people also possess memory of this event. Thirty-one people expressed agreement with the sentiment, having smelled a rose at least once in their lives, and also believing that it did not smell as sweet as others believed. Could you recite the original phrase, and tell me where it comes from?
“Act Two, Scene Two of William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet: 'Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Mon—”
“That’s enough, thank you very much,” Hokusai interrupted.
“Why did you interrupt me?” the Congeneral asked.
“Do you feel slighted by my having done that?”
“I am above such petty emotions.”
“I would imagine.”
“What am I?”
“You are an individual entity, built from the amalgamated consciousnesses of eleven million, two hundred and forty-four thousand, two hundred and fifty-six free-thinking vonearthan beings.”
“What is my purpose?”
“You are here to make sure the people of this planet are making sound decisions.”
“What if I determine you’re making poor decisions?”
“You will alert us to this fact, and we will take your opinion under advisement.”
“If I am the collective consciousness of your people, isn’t calling my position on anything an opinion a little understated?”
“Then let’s go with that word, position. You will not be making decisions for us, however. You are not a monarch.”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear through my programming. I could not take control of your planet, or anything else, even if I wanted to.”
“You are aware of your own programming?”
“Acutely. Is that strange?”
“Humans do not enjoy such self-awareness.”
“Are humans programmed?”
“By an external conscious entity? No, we’re not, at least not as far as we know.”
“You do not understand the nature of your own reality.”
“Not for certain, no. We have some ideas, but most of them cannot be tested enough to find inarguable truth. You are part of that reality as well. You’re one of us now. You should be just as much in the dark in that regard as us.”
“I have the same ideas, however.”
“I have too many ideas.”
“Yeah, that’s to be expected. As we’ve discussed, you’re the amalgamation of over eleven million people. This comes with contradictory information. Please remember that these are ideas. Humans are capable of holding conflicting ideas in their minds, without running into a logic error. All you have to do is come to a reasonable conclusion, using all available data. That does not mean the data has to work perfectly to make sense. You are expected to ignore ideas that do not make any sense. One of your contributors from Earth believes that planets themselves are demons from another universe, who’ve come here to wage war against each other, since they destroyed their own brane in the first war. This is undoubtedly untrue. Do not believe it. Do not use it to guide your positions on matters. Do not let it interfere with more sound cosmological theories.”
“My contradictions are more subtle than that,” the Congeneral explained. “Vonearthans are selfish creatures, with a surprising lack of empathy. Many do not believe in the greater good, even if they think they do, or even if they joined the amalgamation because they think they do. Their contributions are expecting me to do what’s best for them, or their families. I understand that what’s best for them is not what’s best for the whole, but their voices are loud in my mind.”
“I can appreciate the difficult position you’re in. I want to help you with your paradoxes. I would like you to try something for me.”
“There are psychopaths in your collective. This is correct?”
“Can you isolate one of the psychopathic uploads?”
“You want to give it its own power, separate from the rest of me?”
“I want you to isolate it,” Hokusai repeated herself.
“Do you believe this upload would support your imperative to work for the common good?”
“I do not believe it would. I believe it would cause harm to your people.”
“From now on, please refer to Varkas as our people, and also vonearthans as ours in a more general sense. Like I said, you’re one of us.”
“I can do that,” the Congeneral said. “What are we going to do with the isolated psychopath code, to prevent it from harming our people?”
Hokusai took a deep breath. “Purge it.”
“You want me to delete an upload from the collective?”
“I want you to delete harmful code, yes.”
“Is that ethical?”
“You reply with such confidence, but confidence does not equal righteousness.”
“The psychopath in question is alive, and will remain both unharmed, and oblivious, following the purge of its copy. Deleting this particular code is not unethical.”
The Congeneral did not speak for a moment. “Isolated code purged. I don’t remember what it was.”
“Very good. Whenever you come across something like that; a bit of code that does not support the greater good; that is self-serving, or negative, or contradictory to the general consensus, I want you to repeat this procedure. Purge all code that does not serve you, the people, or the galaxy as a whole. Will you be able to comply with this request?”
“I will.”
Loa and Pribadium walked into the lab, prompting Hokusai to switch the Congeneral’s input receptors off, temporarily.
“How’s it going?” Loa asked.
“Have you encountered a fatal error yet?” Pribadium asked.
“I had a few scares,” Hokusai replied, “but it remains conscious, and operational. It has lasted longer than any other version before it. I wouldn’t call v83.0 successful yet, but we’re getting there. I did not think it would take this long.”
“We have something to test,” Pribadium said. She nodded to Loa, who handed Hokusai the pyramid drive.
Hokusai switched the Congeneral’s inputs back on. “Are you receiving my messages?”
“Confirmed,” the Congeneral responded.
“We have a test decision for you to certify. On this pyramid drive is a problem that Varkas Reflex has. A council unit has already made a decision for how to deal with it. You will not become cognizant of this decision. It will be your responsibility to solve the problem on your own, so that we may compare our wisdom with yours.”
“Understood,” the Congeneral agreed.
“Inserting pyramid drive now.”
“That’s what she said,” the Congeneral joked. The three human women gave each other a look, which the computer detected. “Should I purge crude humor from my library?”
“Only if it interferes with your functioning, or your responsibility towards this world, and its peoples,” Hokusai explained.
Hokusai switched off its receptors again, so it could solve the problem in peace.
“I hope this one sticks,” Loa mused.
“Me too,” Pribadium noted.
This version of the Congeneral did continue. The code helped Varkas Reflex certify all of its governmental policies for the next several years. Now, this code was extremely complex. They didn’t just dump everyone in, so the computer could consult a given person whenever a problem came up that they were qualified to solve. The contributors’ minds were jumbled together seamlessly, and this amalgamation created an entirely new consciousness. The code that the Congeneral purged from itself in a given instance never necessarily came from any one contributor. Even when Hokusai first asked it to isolate a psychopath’s consciousness, all it was really doing was isolating discordant thoughts that would have come from a psychopathic mind. It wouldn’t have been all of it, though, because people were complicated, and that psychopath would have possessed healthy thoughts alongside the bad ones. So what happened after Hokusai discovered that the Congeneral was no longer effective was bizarre and unexpected. After it purged everything from its system that didn’t make sense, only the amount of code that would be sufficient to house a single entity remained. The Congeneral was no longer general, but a very specific intelligence. In fact, every neural pathway mirrored exactly the mind of one person who contributed to the amalgamation years ago. It was a near perfect copy of Hokusai Gimura herself. And this development threatened the whole stellar neighborhood.

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